Scientific projects are unusually difficult to plan mainly due to their unpredictability in both outcome and effort that needs to be put into it to achieve them. Having to manage a number of them simultaneously with only a limited amount of time available for each one is a challenge to the productivity as a scientist. Here are a couple of practices I implement to ensure a productive use of my time while keeping the necessary flexibility in carrying out my scientific research. I use them as guidelines and best practices, but I am not always living up to these standards myself.
- 3-5 year vision of what I want to achieve
- Goals should be as little dependent on external factors and and on luck as possible, i.e. rather than ‘getting this job’, have a vision like ‘becoming an expert/contribute in this particular field’.
- The purpose is to define how much time to spend on each topic, and not so much on goals with specific measures of success (those are more important for the shorter term)
- Changes to the list can be made, but only if this wish for a change is persistent.
- Concrete spelled-out projects, usually ending with at least one publication, sometimes more
- Clear measure of success
- List has a clear hierarchy in priority
- There are a number of ‘potential projects’ lingering there for months (sometimes years) until they become real projects.
Hierarchy of time plans
- Starting from a yearly plan (inspired by project list, with relative importance/time informed by vision list)
- Plans in successively smaller timescales (for me: year, quarter, month, week, day)
- Each item has to be part of a longer term plan item, but more specific
- Daily plan filled by items of weekly plan
- Retrospective & planning session at the end of each plan period
- Measure fraction of completed tasks to adjust future plans
- Separate list for spontaneous requests
- Including all email & informal requests
- Enough dedicated time in daily plan for ‘work on urgent list’ (say 2-3h/day)
- Only check communication (email, slack, …) during ‘work on urgent list’ to ensure other items can be worked on undisturbed; 3 times a day works quite well for me (as a compromise between availability and undisturbed working).
- During weekly planning, urgent list items can move to next weekly plan
Physical or digital?
This really depends on personal preferences.
I have my yearly, quarterly and monthly plan, as well as the vision and project list in the same physical notebook. The weekly plan is integrated as a ‘sprint’ to a scrum workflow handled by a project management software. This is highly useful because it allows automated generation of measures of productivity on a weekly basis, but also fairly time-consuming. I use a loose sheet of paper to create a plan for the following day every evening. My ‘urgent list’ is a simple Kanban board.